The story of the introduction of Christianity into Ireland is altogether so interesting, that it may be well to add something further to what has already been told of S. Bridget, and to the story of S. Itha. In the evangelisation of the Emerald Isle, woman had her place beside man, and S. Bridget and S. Itha played their part as effectually as did S. Patrick and S. Benignus.
Let us first see what the paganism of the Irish consisted in, and what was their social condition before S. Patrick preached, so that we may be able to realise to some degree what a revolution was effected by the introduction of the Gospel.
The heathen Irish certainly adored idols; one of the principal of these was Cromm Cruaich, 182which is said to have been the chief idol of Ireland. It is said to have been of gold, and to have been surrounded by twelve lesser idols of stone. To this Cromm Cruaich the Irish were wont to sacrifice their children. There still exists an old poem that mentions this:
“Milk and corn
They sought of him urgently,
For a third of their offspring,
Great was its horror and its wailing.”
Then there were the Side worshipped. We do not know what these were, but it is thought that they were the spirits of ancestors. The sun also received adoration, so did wells. S. Patrick went to the well of Slan, and there he was told that the natives venerated it as a god; it was the King of Waters, and they believed that an old dead faith or prophet lay in it under a great stone that covered the well. S. Patrick moved the slab aside, and so destroyed the sanctity of the well.
There can be no doubt that polygamy existed: Bridget’s father had a wife in addition to Brotseach, her mother; and S. Patrick, like 183S. Paul, had to insist that those whom he consecrated as bishops should be husbands of one wife.
Women were in low repute; they were required to go into battle and fight along with the men, and it was only on the urgency of Adamnan in the synod of Drumceatt, in 574, that they were exempted. A man could sell his daughter—it was so with Dubtach and Bridget. In the life of S. Illtyt, a Welsh Knight, it is told how one stormy morning, when he wanted to have his strayed horses collected, he pushed his wife out of her bed and sent her without any clothes on to drive the horses together. There is no doubt but the Irish husbands were quite as brutal.
There is a very curious story in the life of S. Patrick. He was desirous of revisiting his old master Miliuc with whom he had been a slave as a lad, and from whom he had run away. His hope was to convert Miliuc, and to propitiate him with a double ransom. But the old heathen, frightened at his approach, and unwilling to receive him and listen to his Gospel, burned himself alive in his house 184with all his substance. This seems to point to the Indian Dharna having been customary in Ireland.
When S. Patrick converted the Irish he dealt very gently with such of their customs as were harmless. The wells they so reverenced he converted into baptisteries, and the pillar-stones they venerated he rendered less objectionable by cutting crosses on them. The Druids wore white raiment, and had their heads tonsured; he made his clergy adopt both the white habit and the tonsure.
The oak was an object of reverence, and S. Bridget set up her cell under an ancient oak. She did not cut it down, and when people came on pilgrimage to it, taught them of Christ, from under its leafy boughs.
There was another relic of paganism that was not ruthlessly rejected. The ancient Irish venerated fire. Now, in Ireland, where the atmosphere is so charged with moisture, it is not easy to procure fire by rubbing sticks together, as it would be in Italy or Africa. Consequently it was a matter of extreme importance that fires should not be allowed to 185be extinguished. It was the custom among the early Latins that there should be in every village a circular hut in which the fire was kept ever burning, and the unmarried girls were expected and obliged to attend to it; and if by the fault of any it became extinguished, then her life was forfeit.
As the Romans became more civilised, the central hut was called the Temple of Vesta, or Hestia,—the Hearth-fire; and a certain number of virgins was chosen, and invested with great privileges, whose duty it was never to allow it to die out.
Now, it was much the same in Ireland, and it was more important there to keep fire always burning, than it was in the drier air of Italy. S. Bridget undertook that she and her nuns should keep the sacred fire from extinction, and Kildare became the centre from which fire could always be procured. The fire was twice extinguished, once by the Normans and again at the Reformation, finally.
The monastery of Kildare had a les about it—that is to say, it was enclosed within a bank and moat; the buildings were, however, 186of wood and wattle. This we know from a story in the Life of S. Bridget. When she was about laying out her monastery, a hundred horses arrived laden with “peeled rods,” for Ailill, son of that very prince Dunlaing who had refused to buy her when he found she had given away her father’s sword. Some of the girls ran to beg for the poles, but were refused. As, however, some of the horses fell down under their burdens, which were excessive, Ailill gave way and supplied them with stakes and wattles. He very good-naturedly allowed his horses to bring to Bridget as many more as were required, free of cost. “And,” says the writer, “therewith was built S. Bridget’s great house in Kildare.”
All the sisters wore white flannel habits, and on their heads white veils. Each had her own cell, but all met for Divine worship and for meals. During the latter, Bridget’s bishop Conlaeth read aloud to them.
Bridget travelled about a great deal, visiting her several communities, in a car or chariot; and her driver was at her desire ordained priest, so that as she sat in her conveyance, he could 187turn his head over his shoulder and preach to her and the sisters with her. One day Bridget said: “This is inconvenient. Turn bodily about, that we may hear you the better, and as for the reins, throw them down. The horses will jog along.”
So he cast the reins over the front of the chariot, and addressed his discourse to them with his back to the horses. Unhappily, one of these latter took advantage of the occasion, and slipped its neck from the yoke, and ran free; and so engrossed were Bridget and her companion in the sermon of the priestly coachman, that they discovered nothing till they were nearly upset.
On another occasion, she and one of her nuns were being driven over a common near the Liffey, when they came to a long hedge, for a man had enclosed a portion of the common. But Bridget’s driver had no relish for such encroachments, and determined to assert his “right of way,” so he prepared to drive over the hedge. Bridget told him to go round, but not he—he would assert his right. Over went the chariot with such a bounce, that 188away flew the coachman, Bridget, and her nun, like rockets; and when they picked themselves up were all badly bruised, and Bridget’s head was cut open. She had it bound up, and continued her journey. When she got home she consulted her physician, who with shrewd sense said, “Leave it alone. Nature is your best doctor.”
In the “Book of Leinster,” compiled in the twelfth century, is a list of saintly virgins who were trained under S. Bridget. It is, however, by no means complete. A few words shall be devoted to some of them. One, very young, had been committed to Bridget when quite a child. Her name was Darlugdach. She slept with Bridget, her foster-mother. Now, as she grew to be a big girl, she became restive, and impatient of the restraints of the convent life at Kildare, and she had formed a plan with another to run away.
The night on which she had resolved on leaving the monastery she was, as usual, sleeping in the same bed with Bridget; and she laid herself in her bosom, her heart fluttering with excitement, and with her mind at conflict 189between love of her foster-mother and desire to be out and free as a bird.
At last she rose, and in an agony of uncertainty cast herself on her knees, and besought God to strengthen her to remain where she knew she would be safe. Then, in the vehemence of her resolve, she thrust her naked feet before the red coals that glowed on the hearth, and held them there till she could bear it no longer, and limped back to bed, and nestled again into the bosom of the holy mother.
When morning broke, Bridget rose, and looked at the scorched soles of Darlugdach, and touching them said gently, “I was not asleep, my darling child. I was awake and aware of your struggle, but I allowed you to fight it out bravely by yourself. Now that you have conquered, you need not fear this temptation again.”
Darlugdach, when S. Bridget was dying, clung to her, in floods of tears, and entreated her spiritual mother to allow her to die with her. But S. Bridget promised that she should follow speedily—but not yet. Now, on the 190very anniversary of S. Bridget’s departure, next year, Darlugdach fell ill of a fever and died.
Another of Bridget’s nuns was named Dara, who was blind—indeed, had been born without sight.
One evening Bridget and Dara sat together and talked all night of the joys of Paradise. And their hearts were so full that the hours of darkness passed without their being aware how time sped; and lo! above the Wicklow mountains rose the golden sun, and in the glorious light the sky flashed, and the river glittered, and all creation awoke. Then Bridget sighed, because she knew that Dara’s eyes were closed to all this beauty. So—the legend tells—she bowed her head in prayer; and presently God wrought a great miracle, for the eyes of the blind woman opened, and she saw the golden ball in the east, and the purple mountains, the trees, and the flowers glittering in the morning dew. She cried out with delight. Now for the first time she—
“Saw a bush of flowering elder,
And dog-daisies in its shade,
Tufted meadow-sweet entangled
In a blushing wild-rose braid.
191“Saw a distant sheet of water
Flashing like a fallen sun;
Saw the winking of the ripples
Where the mountain torrents run.
“Saw the peaceful arch of heaven,
With a cloudlet on the blue,
Like a white bird winging homeward
With its feathers drenched in dew.”
Then Dara tried to lift up her heart to God in thanksgiving; but her attention was distracted,—now it was a bird, then a flower, then a change in the light,—and she could not fix her mind on God. Then a sadness came upon her, and she cried—
“‘O my Saviour!’
With a sudden grief oppressed,—
‘Be Thy will, not mine, accomplished;
Give me what Thou deemest best.’
“Then once more the clouds descended,
And the eyes again waxed dark;
All the splendour of the sunlight
Faded to a dying spark.
“But the closèd heart expanded
Like the flower that blooms at night
Whilst, as Philomel, the spirit
Chanted to the waning light.”
192Again, another of Bridget’s nuns was Brunseach; she, however, went, probably on Bridget’s death, to a religious house that had been founded by S. Kieran of Saighir, over which he had set his mother, Liadhain.
She was young and beautiful, and Dioma, the chief of the country of the Hy Fiachach, came by violence and carried her off to his dun or castle.
Kieran was angry, and at once seizing his staff, went to the residence of the prince, and demanded that she should be surrendered to him. The chief shut his gates and refused to admit the saint. Kieran remained outside, although it was winter, and declared he would not return without her.
During the night there was a heavy fall of snow, but the saint would not leave. Then Dioma, taunting him, said, “Come, I will let her go on one condition, that to-morrow I hear the stork, and that he awake me from sleep.”
And actually next morning there was a stork perched on the palisade of the dun, and was uttering its peculiar cries. The tyrant 193arose in alarm, threw himself before the saint, and dismissed the damsel.
However, he had quailed only for a while, and presently renewed his persecution. Brunseach, according to the legend, died of fright, but was brought to life again by S. Kieran—that is to say, she fainted and was revived.
The story is late, and has become invested in fable; but so much of it is true, that Brunseach was carried off by Dioma, and that Kieran managed to get her restored.
It was perhaps through the annoyance caused by the prince that he resolved to leave Ireland. He settled in Cornwall. But he had taken with him his old nurse and Brunseach, and he found for them suitable habitations there. Kieran himself was there called Piran, and he founded several churches. That of his nurse in the Cornish peninsula is Ladock, and Brunseach is known there as S. Buriana.
“Nothing has been recorded of her life and labours in Cornwall, except the general tradition that she spent her days in good works and great sanctity; but the place where she dwelt was regarded as holy ground for centuries, 194and can still be pointed out. It lies about a mile south-east of the parish church which bears her name, beside a rivulet on the farm of Bosleven; and the spot is called the Sentry, or Sanctuary. The crumbling ruins of an ancient structure still remain there, and traces of extensive foundations have been found adjoining them. If not the actual ruins, they probably occupy the site of the oratory in which Athelstan, after vanquishing the Cornish king, knelt at the shrine of the saint, and made his memorable vow that, if God would crown his expedition to the Scilly Isles with success, he would on his return build and endow there a church and college in token of his gratitude, and in memory of his victories.
“It was on that wild headland, about four miles from Land’s End, that S. Buriana took up her abode; and a group of saints from Ireland, who were probably her friends and companions, and who seem to have landed on our shores at the same time, occupied contiguous parts of the same district. There she watched and prayed with such devotion, that the fame of her goodness found its way back to her 195native land; and thenceforth Brunseach the Slender, by which designation she had been known there, was enrolled in the catalogue of the Irish saints; but her Christian zeal was spent in the Cornish parish that perpetuates her name.”[4]
Bridget had two disciples of the name of Brig or Briga. This was by no means an uncommon name. A sister of S. Brendan was so called.
Another was Kiara, and this virgin we perhaps meet with again in Cornwall as Piala, the sister of Fingar. Amongst the Welsh and Cornish the hard sound K became P, thus Ken (head), was pronounced Pen; so S. Kieran became Piran.
Fingar and his sister formed a part of a great colony of emigrants who started for Cornwall. Fingar had settled in Brittany, but he returned to Ireland and persuaded his sister to leave the country with him. This she was the more inclined to do as she was being forced into marriage in spite of her 196monastic vows. They left Ireland with the intention of going back to Brittany, but were carried by adverse winds to Cornwall, and landed at Hayle.
King Tewdrig, who had a palace hard by, did not relish the arrival of a host of Irish, and he set upon them and massacred most of them. Kiara, however, was not molested, though her brother was killed. She settled where is now the parish church of Phillack. The scene of her brother’s martyrdom was Gwynear, hard by. She probably did not care to leave the proximity to his grave; she had no one to go with to Armorica, and it seems likely that a larger body of Irish came over shortly after, occupied all the west part of Cornwall, and so made her condition more tolerable.